Aroundtown Meets Charlie Smark

She’s the 23-year-old who makes running a business look like a piece of cake.

Since launching Dolly’s Desserts five years ago, Charlie Smark has brought hordes of people into Barnsley to satisfy their sweet tooth cravings with her range of velvety gelato and decadent desserts.

But as well as its scrumptious menu, the success of Dolly’s has also been fuelled by society’s insatiable appetite for social media content. Thanks to Charlie’s tech savviness and viral videos, Dolly’s Desserts has racked up 1.7 million followers and 89.5 million likes on TikTok.

Social media has enabled Charlie to open a sit-down dessert parlour, venture into postal orders reaching thousands of homes across the UK, employ a team of 30 under 30s, collaborate with huge brands like Nutella, Tango and Now TV, write a cookbook, and even bring singer Tom Walker into Barnsley.

Customers travel from as far away as Edinburgh, Somerset and Cornwall to devour a Dolly’s dessert. Most weekends, there will be a queue snaking out of The Glassworks or Market Kitchen with people prepared to stand and wait for scoops of birthday cake, bubble gum or bakewell flavoured gelato.

But what is it about Dolly’s that makes people melt?

They’re in the happiness business. No one comes to Dolly’s to be miserable.

It’s an uncomplicated, sinless pleasure, one that brings back memories of childhood. Whether they’re two or 102, their customer base is very much young at heart – and they all fall silent with one of Dolly’s ice creams in their hand.

Well, technically gelato.

Theirs is made with Italian imported ingredients and less cream content, so it’s softer and lower in fat and calories than traditional hard scoop ice cream.

In the height of summer, Dolly’s churns out 70 batches – or 350 litres – of gelato a day. It’s a 4am start for their chief ice cream maker, Hattie, to make sure they’re fully stocked up before opening.

Some is used for their Whippy machine, but most of the gelato base is turned into an assortment of flavours for the ice cream counter.

It was ice cream in a different form that first got Charlie experimenting with making her own gelato.

Before Dolly’s, Charlie first cut her teeth in business at the age of 16 while still at sixth form. She and her mum Janine opened Ice Queenz on the Victorian Arcade, inspired by a family trip to Thailand. They’d been amazed by the famous ice cream rolls, a popular Thai street food dessert, and wanted to bring the novel idea back to South Yorkshire.

After buying a machine from China and spending countless hours practicing in their home kitchen in Thorpe Hesley, Charlie and Janine started selling their ice cream rolls at food festivals and from a pop-up pitch in Barnsley town centre. But they knew they needed a permanent base to survive the winter, so set up shop on the Victorian Arcade.

“The rolls were really time consuming to make. We were so inexperienced and made a lot of mistakes. It was a lot more difficult than we imagined. But we then went on a course to master the art of making gelato and fell in love with it,” Charlie says.

When Barnsley Council announced that the historic Barnsley Markets was being redeveloped, they approached Charlie and Janine to be part of the first cohort of traders in the new Market Kitchen food hall on the first floor.

By then, Charlie had dropped out of sixth form to concentrate on the fledgling business. They’d been looking at whether to scale down Ice Queenz but, with both her parents having been traders on Barnsley Market for years, Charlie could see the potential of relocating. They took the plunge and moved into the Market Kitchen in 2019, rebranding as Dolly’s Desserts in honour of the family’s beloved cockapoo.

As well as gelato, the Dolly’s menu featured a range of desserts like pancake stacks, cookie dough and brownies – all made by Janine.

“Mum never baked when I was younger and can’t bake a cake to save her life. But her brownies and cookie dough are amazing. She worked tirelessly tweaking the recipes until they were perfect, and they became a huge hit with our customers selling out every week.”

All was going well and footfall was great, but then Covid happened and shut the stall down overnight. Instead of being stuck at home twiddling her thumbs, Charlie decided to set up a TikTok account which became a turning point for the business.

She started filming and photographing their desserts. Her videos quickly went viral and spiralled into a social media sensation. When lockdown restrictions eased and they were allowed to do takeaways, people were road tripping from across the country to try the famed desserts they’d seen on TikTok. As word of mouth spread, they just got busier.

“We only had eight staff then including me and Mum. She was baking everything at home so that the small Market Kitchen unit could be used to make the gelato. It just wasn’t big enough and we couldn’t carry on that way.

“We had to work quickly and make choices about the stock, staff and shop. Everything is made fresh on site. We don’t just use packet mixes that you mix water into, so we needed a proper kitchen to cope with demand.”

The natural progression was to have their own bricks-and-mortar unit, but it could have been a big risk. Not all businesses have the ability to survive once the TikTok hype cools off.

But this was a time when Charlie’s young age played to her advantage. She was fearless enough to take risks and live in the moment. There was no time to dwell on any negativity or sweat the small stuff.

When they were offered a unit in the Glassworks development, Charlie jumped at it. After months of hard work, the store opened a week before Christmas in December 2022.

“I always wanted to give customers that ultimate TikTok experience and not just feel like they were in a takeaway dessert shop. But the leap to opening the Glassworks store has definitely been the biggest challenge.

“It was literally an empty shell but I had a vision in my head of how it should look. Me and Mum poured our hearts into building it from the ground up, with every detail being meticulously planned. Even now we’re still learning and things aren’t always perfect but we keep working hard to ensure that standards are consistently how I want them to be.”

Dolly’s is a dessert parlour with personality. It’s fun and modern with a luxury appeal, its interior inspired by their indulgent desserts.

The gelato counter is set out Subway style: choose your cone or tub, flavour, toppings and sauce. No two visits will ever be the same as the flavours differ each day. They also have limited edition seasonal flavours for summer, Easter, Halloween and Christmas.

Charlie’s natural creativity has helped her come up with the ingenious flavour combinations.

“I was never academic at school and always loved the more creative subjects like art, dance and media, so that probably helped. To the gelato base you can basically add any flavour. I usually go to our supplier with an idea and they break down the logistics and science of it all so we get the ratios spot on.

“Bubble waffles are one of our biggest sellers but they were Mum’s idea. We’d never seen them anywhere else locally and they’ve been so popular, so I’ve got to give her credit for them.”

Charlie and Janine have recently announced they’re releasing their own cookbook in September filled with recipes for all the Dolly’s favourites. You can learn how to make gelato, brownies and pancakes at home, and there’s even a section on dog friendly bakes!

Things have moved fast over the last five years and there’s not been much time to chill. Charlie isn’t one to sugar coat the reality of being a business owner. She went viral on TikTok for her authentically honest ‘day in the life’ videos, offering somewhat therapeutic behind-the-scenes glimpses of the inner workings of the business.

Until recently, she spent seven days a week on the shop floors of both the Market Kitchen and Glassworks stores making (and filming) customer orders. But she’s realised the importance of taking a step back and enjoying more time with the chief treat sampler, her fiancé Tayler.

“I went through a stage where I never went out with my friends like other young people do as I was always working. I matured so much at such a young age, but its unnatural to have that sort of workload and pressure in your early 20s. I had big decisions to make, deadlines to meet, and vast sums of money to spend on the shop.

“I’ve calmed down a lot recently, but, as a content creator, my phone is my business so there’s always constantly something to do. Me and Mum can lock horns at times as she doesn’t know when to switch off or delegate.”

Charlie has established a solid core team of 30 staff that includes three bakers who make all their signature bakes and sauces, and two who deal solely with online orders for their merchandise and bake-at-home kits. Store manager Anika is only 21 and has been with them since the Ice Queenz days, while supervisor Lauren started as a pot washer and worked her way up.

She might now get weekends off, but Charlie is still always planning for the week ahead, posting orders, filming content, writing allergens lists, doing stock takes, balancing the books and chopping stuff in the kitchen when needed.

The last five years have been sprinkled with sweet success, but Charlie’s still as driven. Together with her mum Janine, she’d like to have more pop-up shops elsewhere in the country and continue to build their online sales of ready-baked and bake-at-home kits for more and more people to fall in love with Dolly’s Desserts.

In the meantime, you can pre-order a copy of their debut cookbook at